Policing that works

Accompanying the relentless news of gun violence is an equally relentless set of debates about how we should respond. More gun control. Tougher policing and sentencing. Less policing. Better policing. Better families. More drug treatment and job training. End poverty and racism. Often, feeding those opinions and conclusions are the latest experiments that prove the point we want to make or provide a straw to grasp for: a city that has momentarily solved its violence problem with a particular tactic; a study of one place and one approach that seems to work; a place where a hated tactic seems to backfire.

What’s lacking from this anecdote-driven conversation is solid evidence of what actually works, not just in this place or that, but overall. In my latest story for The Trace (published also by The Crime Report), I look at the results of decades’ worth of accumulated evidence on what works in policing strategies to reduce gun violence. The result is a sort of scorecard on types of strategies that have amassed the strongest records of results.

The conclusions contradict many common assumptions about what should be done. More broadly, they run counter to a persistent pessimism that has dominated this field of study for about 40 years. Now, instead of a “nothing works” mentality, we have clear guidance on certain approaches that clearly do work — not because they worked once or twice, or recently, but because they have been subjected to scores of rigorous tests, and the research I cite has found patterns of effectiveness by combining studies’ results. So, problem solved? Obviously not. There’s a long history of policymakers and the public ignoring such findings. Even if they paid close attention, there’s little certainty even in these scientifically sound conclusions. After all, we’re talking about enormously complex social problems and circumstances that vary greatly and change constantly.

But the report card that I developed for The Trace — with an accompanying Q&A I did with one of the leading researchers, David Weisburd — goes a long way toward providing clarity about which policing approaches prove most promising to reduce gun violence.

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